A strong, well-developed relationship between states is built on positive relationships between individuals across all levels of a bilateral – from leaders to military personnel to students on exchange. A high level of positive interaction between individuals outside the political arena can be sufficient to allow a bilateral relationship to survive turmoil at the political level – whether it be a diplomatic crisis or poor relations between leaders. This is seen in the case of the U.S.-Australia alliance, where the relationship, as Penny Wong put it, is “longstanding and institutional, and is not a function of the personalities of our respective leaders.”
However, a lack of such a web of positive societal interactions makes relationships between leaders and high-level ministers the only linchpin on which a bilateral relationship can survive and thrive.
The necessity for good relationships between political leaders and ministers creates a problem for Australia. Over the past decade Australia has lurched through a series of domestic political crises, which have prompted a rapid turnover of prime ministers and cabinet ministers.
Paramedics no longer ask Australians who their prime minister is in order to determine their mental state – it is considered an unreasonable question. If it is unreasonable for those of us who live here to keep track of who is leading us, how is it fair to expect other states to keep track? More to the point, how is it fair to ask the political leaders and ministers of other states to invest energy into forming good working relationships with their Australian counterparts when those counterparts may not last the year?
It is not a stretch to assume that Malcolm Turnbull went to the recent APEC and East Asia Summit meetings wondering if they would be his last, given the combination of low polling, the dual citizenship crisis, and the difficulties within his own cabinet regarding same-sex marriage legislation. His performance at the APEC meeting and the EAS has widely been viewed as underwhelming – likely as a consequence of a combination of domestic distractions, and a lack of time to develop relationships with his counterparts.
What does all of this mean for the stated aims of Australia’s recent new Foreign Policy White Paper? Susan Harris Rimmer has rightly criticized it as “more wishful thinking than concrete ideas.” Indeed, in many ways the very idea of the Indo-Pacific is in itself an example of wishful thinking, as it is reliant on relationships Australia has yet to sufficiently develop. Rimmer raises the question: “What if geographic proximity to a rising Asia is not enough to ensure our own rise?” The answer to this question is clear: proximity will not be sufficient. Neither the idea of the Indo-Pacific, nor the idea of the Quad, are adequate strategic constructs so long as they exist as mere hopes and dreams.
The key to successful navigation through the Indo-Pacific as Australia’s avowed new strategic setting is the development of strong, trusting relationships with key Indo-Pacific states. The White Paper focuses on Japan, India, Indonesia, and South Korea as Australia’s primary Indo-Pacific partners.
Indonesia and India are two particularly underdeveloped relationships relative to their importance, and will need considerable investment to see improvements take place. Being underdeveloped in nature, they are reliant on strong leader and ministerial relationships to drive successful engagement capable of strengthening the relationship. It is widely agreed that one of the most significant high points in the Australia-Indonesia relationship took place in the first half of the 1990s. This was only possible due to the strong inter-personal relationships which developed between Foreign Ministers Gareth Evans and Ali Alatas, and leaders Paul Keating and Suharto.
Move forward to today and such relationships seem unlikely. Even if the right combination of people happens to be in place, on the Australian side they will find themselves unlikely to be there long. Since Kevin Rudd took office in 2007, there have been five changes to the Australian prime ministership. In the same period, Indonesia and India have had only two leaders apiece.
Australia has also had four foreign affairs ministers, six defense ministers, and six trade ministers in the last decade, preventing strong ministerial relationships from softening the burden of frequent leadership changes. These numbers paint a clear picture of the difficulty Australia will have in forging the strong leader-to-leader and minister-to-minister relationships so vital for improving bilateral relationships if this trend continues.
Foreign policy begins at home. It is not feasible to expect a successful Australian strategy for navigating the Indo-Pacific so long as the domestic political circus is in tow.
Sian Troath is a Ph.D. candidate at Flinders University.